Investors throw $115M at French IoT network outfit Sigfox

Sigfox, the French startup that’s rolling out an international internet-of-things network, mostly by partnering with local network operators, has scored a massive $115 million funding round from the likes of Telefonica and NTT DoCoMo.

The company provides the technology for its network of wireless networks, which only support low data rates but can handle millions of connections. This approach is designed for all those meters and sensors that comprise the internet of things, and is arguably a better bet for such devices than the traditional phone networks, which are aiming for higher bandwidth for mobile internet purposes.

The round consists of an up-front $93 million and a $22 million “greenshoe” that will see new shares drummed up for the new investors in the coming months. In a Wednesday statement, [company]Sigfox[/company] said it would use the money to speed up its rollout in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It’s already up and running in France, Spain, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Russia.

Sigfox already counted [company]Intel[/company] Capital, Elaia Partners, iXO PE, Partech Ventures and Idinvest among its investor. The new round brings in a host more: carriers [company]Telefonica[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]NTT DoCoMo[/company] Ventures, as well as Elliott Management corporation, GDF Suez, Air Liquide and [company]Eutelsat[/company].

The last three are industrial partners as well – GDF Suez and Air Liquide will give Sigfox a particular boost in the energy efficiency sector, and Eutelsat strategy director Jean-Hubert Lenotte said that company’s investment “signals our conviction that satellites can accelerate the development of the IoT market, both in terms of reach and reliability.”

EU response to free speech killings? More internet censorship

In the wake of this week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which began with the killing of 12 people at the offices of satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, the interior ministers of 12 EU countries have called for a limited increase in internet censorship.

The interior ministers of France, Germany, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.K. said in a statement (PDF) that, while the internet must remain “in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law,” ISPs need to help “create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.”

This sounds similar to recent agreements in the U.K. whereby ISPs use filters to stop citizens seeing “extremist” online content, though it’s hard to tell without more details. There seems to be no coordinated push for more internet surveillance just yet, although there is a drive for better intelligence sharing between EU countries.

It seems, to say the least, an awkward reaction to what was in part a free-speech-related attack — the left-wing Charlie Hebdo has itself frequently been accused of hate speech for its portrayal of Muslims and others. On that front, a German newspaper that reprinted blasphemous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed in the wake of the attack was firebombed in the early hours of Sunday morning, with no injuries. Others that did the same remain under police guard.

At the Paris meeting, the ministers also agreed on a more positive way to counter terrorist propaganda: more speech. They said they had resolved “to develop positive, targeted and easily accessible messages, able to counter this propaganda, aimed at a young audience that is particularly vulnerable to indoctrination.”

The ministers also agreed on various other measures to do with keeping an eye on people travelling, including urgently moving towards a new European Passenger Name Record framework. As legal advice released this week indicates, any such agreement will need to take account of last year’s striking-down of the Data Retention Directive, by embedding significant privacy safeguards.

The meeting came as ministers and heads of state from around the world marched in Paris in solidarity against the attacks and in favor of the free expression for which Charlie Hebdo was targeted. These included representatives of countries such as Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Russia, all of which are notable for cracking down on free expression at home — their presence drew condemnation from Reporters Without Borders, which said it was “appalled”.

“We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard “Willem” Holtrop said of some who had expressed condolences and solidarity with the publication, such as Vladimir Putin, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis. In the Saturday interview with a Dutch newspaper, he added: “I never come to the editorial meetings because I don’t like them. I guess that saved my life.”

Good vibrations: this bracelet lets you communicate without words

What if apps didn’t need a display to send you messages? Or what if you could talk to someone across the room without raising your voice? French wearable startup Novitact wants to solve these problems with its Feeltact bracelet, which the company showed off at CES in Las Vegas this week.

Feeltact is a bracelet that includes four buttons to send and respond to information, as well as multiple small cells that are capable of vibrating in a variety of patterns. The bracelet is connected to your phone via Bluetooth LE, and a dedicated app can be used to define what different patterns of vibrations mean.

IMG_20150108_125836

Novitact CEO Thibaud Severeni demonstrated the bracelet to me Thursday at CES by using the company’s own mobile app, which is capable of translating pre-determined alerts and text messages into vibration patterns, but the company also wants to release an SDK to let third-party app developers access the Feeltact bracelet. The bracelet is currently available for pre-order, and Severeni said that it may cost as much as €250 (almost $300).

That’s a steep price, but I nonetheless like the idea behind Feeltact. Non-visual mobile communication seems to make a whole lot of sense for wearables, many of which either have very small or no displays at all. Not every piece of information warrants a glance. Tactile feedback may be less distracting, and possibly even more immediate than a message that gets lost among too many notifications on your screen.

Of course, Apple is also exploring this idea with its watch. The company has said that Apple watch users will be able to send subtle vibration pulses to a loved one who is also wearing the watch to let them know that you are thinking of them. Severeni told me that his company is aiming for much more complex interactions through the sense of touch, but it may be hard for the company to compete with big guys like Apple, Samsung and LG. That’s why Novitact is also thinking about licensing its technology to manufacturers of smartwatches and other wearables.

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Delivery by drone: French postal video shows it can be done

Amazon and Google may have some catching up to do. It turns out the mail service of France, La Poste, has already successfully field-tested a service that can fly a package to a remote area, drop it off and return home.

As the video below shows, the service dubbed Géodrone involves a small drone with six rotors that can deliver a 9-pound (4 kg) package up to 12 miles (20 km) away. A postal worker loads the package onto the drone, which then unloads it automatically at the recipient’s address and flies off:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX6YCbn2xcM?rel=0]

News reports say from France say the test took place near the town of Pourrières, which is in the southern region of Provence. La Poste has not specified when the service will be in full swing, but suggested that it anticipates using Géodrone to provide service to residents in remote mountainous and maritime regions.

The Géodrone project represents another impressive achievement for France’s emerging unmanned aircraft industry. Earlier this year, drone enthusiasts in the Alps conducted a Star Wars-style pod race in a French forest with the permission of the local government. Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has showed how an ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim in under two minutes.

Such experiments stand in marked contrast to what is occurring in the United States, where a dysfunctional rule-making process at the Federal Aviation Administration has brought drone deployment to a virtual stand-still, even as American companies are clamoring to use them for business purposes. The U.S. approach also differs markedly from Canada, where authorities have issued hundreds of permits to use drones in everything from farming to real estate to TV production.

The FAA has claimed that go-slow approach is essential to ensure the safety of civilian airspace. Critics, however, have suggested the agency has been needlessly reactionary. One alternative proposed by drone lawyer Brendan Schulman is for the FAA to issue special “micro drone” regulations that would let qualified people use drones below 400 feet and away from airports.

Iliad’s Xavier Niel buys Orange Switzerland, growing his empire

French telecom tycoon Xavier Niel may have seen his offers for T-Mobile US rebuffed, but it looks like he’s going to get his hands on a mobile carrier after all. Niel’s private holding company NJJ Capital is buying Orange Switzerland for €2.3 billion (U.S. $2.8 billion) and expects to close the deal in the first quarter after getting regulatory approval.

This deal is a bit different from the [company]T-Mobile[/company] bid, since Neil is buying it direct through private equity. Over the summer, French ISP [company]Iliad[/company], which Neil founded and controls, offered to buy Deutsche Telekom’s controlling interest in T-Mobile US, but [company]DT[/company] and T-Mobile turned it down.

Niel has had more luck on Europe where he bought Monaco Telecom from [company]Cable and Wireless Communications[/company] in April. Orange Switzerland, however, is a far bigger prize, and ironically it bears the name of one of Iliad’s biggest competitors in France. Orange Switzerland isn’t part of the [company]Orange[/company] Group anymore. Orange sold its Swiss operations to Apax Partners in 2012 after Apax won a bidding war that included – you guessed it – Xavier Niel. There have also been reports that Iliad is interested in buying French mobile competitor Boygues Telecom, though Niel has downplayed them.

There’s no word yet on what Niel will do with the Swiss mobile carrier if and when the deal closes. In France, Iliad’s Free Mobile has set off a price war, driving down mobile rates across the country. We might see the same thing across France’s alpine border.

Google axes News in Spain in response to royalty law

Google has decided to shut down Google News in Spain. The decision follows the passage of a law in July that obliges any news aggregator quoting snippets of text or using thumbnails of images from a copyrighted publication to pay royalties for doing so.

In a blog post late Wednesday, [company]Google[/company] News chief Richard Gingras said the service makes no money because Google doesn’t advertise on it, so it would be unsustainable to continue operations in Spain. With the law set to come into effect in January, Google News will shut there on 16 December.

Spain is not the first European country to pass a so-called ancillary copyright law – Germany did so in March 2013 – but its version is much more heavy-handed.

In the German law, publishers can choose whether or not they want to grant a news aggregator such as Google News the right to use snippets of their copyrighted text in its search results without compensation. This is how the German publishers ultimately caved in: Google refused to pay royalties, so it stopped listing the articles of publishers who belonged to the relevant rights collection group. The publishers in that group ended up granting Google the right to use their text without having to pay up, but did so grumbling that the case demonstrated Google abusing its market power (never mind that other German aggregators had done precisely the same thing.)

Under the Spanish “Google tax” law, that simply wouldn’t be an option. There, the levy is an “inalienable right”, meaning publishers couldn’t give Google News a free pass even if they wanted to. As Weblogs CEO Julio Alonso recently wrote, that applies even to those who publish their content under a free-use copyleft license, such as Creative Commons.

Slippery slope

Google’s struggles with European publishers predate these ancillary copyright laws of the last couple years, and on two occasions it was able to stave off anything as drastic as legislative changes. In late 2012, the company struck a deal with Belgian publishers through which it appeared to buy millions of dollars’ worth of advertising in the relevant publications. And in early 2013 it established a fund for French publishers, to “support digital publishing initiatives.”

Now, following the German and Spanish examples, the idea of the “Google tax” may spread, as the European Commission’s recently-installed digital economy chief, Günther Oettinger, has been making noises about applying it across the EU. The German commissioner, who has the copyright reform file, recently said: “When Google takes intellectual works from within the EU and works with them, then the EU may protect those works and demand a levy from Google for them.”

The issue is also a major strand in the Google search antitrust case although, as I have previously argued, it is a copyright issue that bears little relation to the other elements of the case, and it should be considered separately. The other elements of the case are about harm to consumers and Google’s direct rivals, while this element is only about giving the publishers money for nothing.

The Spanish publishers will no doubt now see their traffic drop off a cliff, just as their German counterparts did, and this will almost certainly hammer their advertising revenues. But, because of the severity of the law they themselves forced, they will be able to do nothing about it. It’s not even a move that could see local rivals to Google flourish, as the law is not specific to the U.S. firm. I have asked AEDE, the relevant collection society, for comment.

In the overall theme of Europe pushing back against U.S. firms – a narrative that I find overplayed sometimes, as there isn’t nearly enough coordination in Europe to make this some kind of plot – Spain is fast emerging as the most heavy-handed player. The authorities there seem more overtly protectionist than elsewhere in Europe, and they’re not afraid to cause severe consequences for internet users and businesses.

When Spain banned Uber earlier this week, for example, the injunction also ordered Spanish ISPs and payment processors to block Uber’s customers from being able to use the service. And, as the EFF has pointed out, the same copyright law that introduced the “Google tax” will also introduce criminal liability for websites that refuse to remove links to copyright-infringing material.

These places were Instagram’s most photographed locations in 2014

In its annual end-of-year tradition, Instagram has released the places in the world users capture the most with the filter-friendly app. Last year, the big question was “Why is a shopping mall in Thailand Instagram’s most photographed place in 2013?” The answer had more to do with a Thai cultural proclivity towards obsessive photo sharing then it did with the mall itself.

This year the number one location is no surprise to anyone: The Happiest Place on Earth. Disneyland topped the list after coming in third the last two years. Other returning champions include Dodger Stadium (#8 in 2013 and #7 in 2012), Times Square (#2 in 2013), and Thailand’s Siam Paragon shopping mall (#1 in 2013 and #2 in 2012),

New entrants include Gorky Park and Red Square (Moscow, Russia), the Louvre (Paris, France), Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium (NYC), and Dubai Mall (Dubai, UAE).

Although international places have appeared in Instagram’s most popular list since its first version in 2011, their dominance in this year’s list suggest that Instagram is scaling beyond America, becoming popular enough in other parts of the world that foreign locations are photographed more than American landmarks like the Bellagio, Disney World, and Central Park (which were #4, #5, and #7 respectively on the 2013 most popular places list, but didn’t make the 2014 cut).

Without further ado, here’s the top ten list of 2014 with some pretty photos to boot.

Top Geotagged Locations of 2014 on Instagram

1. Disneyland, Anaheim, California

http://instagram.com/p/wDfDD7rMTc/

2. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California

http://instagram.com/p/ttxW-BB_0l/

3. Times Square, New York, New York

4. Siam Paragon shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand

http://instagram.com/p/wEiOeCnMLk/

5. Gorky Park, Moscow, Russia

View this post on Instagram

Friday night at Gorky Park Feel the heart of Moscow

A post shared by moskau1983 (@moskau1983) on

6. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

View this post on Instagram

Nu dar viena

A post shared by *Irma Straukaite* (@orobalionas) on

7. Red Square, Moscow, Russia

http://instagram.com/p/vtdxwVkghd/

8. Madison Square Garden, New York, New York

http://instagram.com/p/wDPkmZzZww/?modal=true

9. Yankee Stadium, New York, New York:

View this post on Instagram

Blue Sky's for Brown and Maroon

A post shared by Chris Post (@chrismpost) on

10. The Dubai Mall, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

http://instagram.com/p/oIBo5dxA-S/?modal=true

Uber hit with French “deceptive practices” fine and UK tax complaint

Uber keeps getting disrupted by European laws. On top of those recent Dutch driver arrests, the U.S. quasi-taxi outfit has now been fined €100,000 ($128,000) in France for falsely marketing its paid-for UberPop (a.k.a. UberX) offering as a carpooling service, and told by the Parisian court to warn its drivers that they face “criminal conviction.” Meanwhile, in the U.K. transport authorities have referred Uber to the tax authorities for, unlike other taxi firms, not paying any tax in the U.K. (Revenues go to a Dutch subsidiary that’s owned by a Bermuda subsidiary.) Indian authorities are also on the firm’s case over tax, so at least it’s not just Europe.